For Angels, strong starts critical to hot start
Re-establishment of offense, 'pen key, but success begins with rotation
CINCINNATI -- It is fundamentally silly to put too much stock into an April record.
And yet, this feels like a big April for the Angels, doesn't it?
After all, April 2012 -- played, it must be noted, almost entirely sans Mike Trout -- was such a struggle and had such a crippling effect on all that followed. And now that the already lofty expectations surrounding this club have been augmented all the more by the arrival of Josh Hamilton, April 2013 seems pretty important.
"I don't think anybody came into last April taking for granted how good we could potentially be," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "We had issues that every team will have and will run into. We just ran into them right away. Our offense was dry and our bullpen was struggling. We just didn't do ourselves any favors."
The Angels dropped two of three to the Reds this week, so they didn't do themselves any favors as they head into a weekend series with the rival Rangers. That is, however, the smallest of small samples. What truly matters most this month is continued improvement on the health front from a slightly hobbled Albert Pujols, establishing that identity as one of the top offenses in the sport, solidifying roles in a rebuilt bullpen and setting a positive tone for the starting staff.
It's that last one that is most important and most unpredictable for the Halos. The rotation colors all conversation about this club, because, to be frank, few are expecting that starting five -- consisting of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson -- to be at or near the top of the class.
The question is whether the rotation keeps things steady or hampers the big picture.
"It's a little different," Weaver said of the rotation makeup, "but the organization did a good job filling in the pieces. Before last year, we've always been pitching and defense-oriented. Not to say we haven't had good offenses, but we've relied a lot on pitching and defense. Obviously last year, with the acquisition of Pujols, putting him in that lineup and pairing him with Hamilton and now what Trout's doing and a guy like [Mark] Trumbo, bringing in that offense takes the pressure off the pitching."
The offense, thanks in part to the early April elements, didn't exactly explode here at the bandbox known as Great American Ball Park. In fact, the Angels combined to strike out 36 times in three games -- a staggering sum.
The runs, though, are going to come, which is why the Angels just need a rotation that's simply steady.
Steady is what they might get, though this series was uneven. Weaver (one run on two hits over six innings), as usual, was terrific in the opener, but Wilson (three earned runs on five hits over six) was good-not-great in the second game and Blanton (four earned runs on seven hits over five) was tagged with three homers in the finale, as is the nature for a flyball pitcher in this park. That said, the Angels were in every game, which is inherently what you want.
We have a tendency, though, to expect the spectacular from the game's elite. We want a stack of co-aces built for an assault on October.
Hey, it's only natural. But it's not always realistic. Especially for an Angels team that has invested so much elsewhere.
"We all have different criteria," Dipoto said. "At the end of the day, context matters. You've got to figure how it fits in the context of a team with a payroll with a budget and understanding what else is available. It's a little bit different than sitting in a vacuum and saying, 'Is this guy better than this guy?' I can play that game. It's not rocket science. But when you're putting the pieces back together, it's difficult."
Breaking the Angels' offseason down to its core, they made their big free-agent "get" a bat (Hamilton) instead of an arm (Zack Greinke). So repairing the rotation meant making some decidedly lower-profile and definitely less-heralded maneuvers, each of them made with the understanding that the Angels have a home park that suppresses power and a top-notch defense that routinely turns batted balls into outs.
When you keep that context in mind, you might feel a little more comfortable with Wilson as a No. 2 and the Blanton-Vargas-Hanson trio in the back end. But you do have to remember the regression risks that come with Blanton's injury history (though he did come out of camp looking pretty svelte), Vargas' low strikeout rate and Hanson's diminished velocity.
Down the road, depth exists in the form of Jerome Willliams and Garrett Richards, both of whom are in the big league bullpen and could be stretched out at a moment's notice. And in Triple-A, the Angels feel good about prospect A.J. Schugel and his four-pitch repertoire and makeup.
For now, the Angels look at it this way: Weaver is a consistent Cy Young candidate, Wilson was the ace of a Rangers team that reached the World Series twice, Blanton and Hanson were members of recent postseason rotations in Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively, and Vargas is underrated.
"These are the best 800 players in the world," Dipoto said of the big leagues. "On some level, they're the greatest players available. So don't undersell what each of them is capable of."
By month's end, we'll have a greater understanding of what this rotation is capable of and, ergo, a greater understanding of where the Angels stand, relative to the expectations.
It's only one month out of six, so maybe the Angels don't necessarily need a strong start. But they would certainly like to see some steady starts to support what should be an ample offense and prevent the April abyss that plagued them a year ago.